The Big Healey

Of all the British sports cars that appeared in the ’50s and ’60s, one of the most desirable has always been the big Austin Healey—the name derives from comparison to the tiny Sprite. The big Healey’s combination of low, sleek styling and a glorious exhaust note is irresistible.

Many great sports cars are known to express the vision and personality of one man, and this car, perhaps more than any other, proves the point. In this case, the man is Donald Mitchell Healey.

Donald Healey—often known by his initials, DMH—was born on July 3, 1898, in Cornwall, England. Always interested in the mechanical, he was a fighter and bomber pilot in World War I until invalided out of the service after a crash. Soon after, he opened a garage and began entering rallies and races, scoring the first overall win by a British driver at the 1931 Monte Carlo Rallye. He became chief engineer at Triumph and was responsible for the famed Dolomite roadster.

After World War II, DMH formed the Donald Healey Motor Company, Ltd., to build his own cars. The first models were powered by Riley engines and featured chassis constructed by a cement mixer manufacturer. These cars were quick and well received, but expensive.

In 1948 DMH and his son, Geoffrey, visited the United States, and driving from New York City to Los Angeles and back in a Westland Roadster, they saw the potential of the American market. A year later they introduced the famed Healey Silverstone sports car (see Issue 107 for details) and made their first step into the American market by arranging the use of Nash engines, gearboxes and axle assemblies, which were installed into chassis at the Healey factory in Warwick. These cars were bodied by Farina in Italy and sold as the Nash-Healey. They built a few more than 500 of these cars between 1950 and 1954.

Fulfilling Dreams

Back before he began a long relationship with Ford race cars, Jerry Walsh campaigned an Austin Healey 100—one that carried some very interesting sponsorship.

Still, DMH wanted to build a faster car in higher volumes that would be priced between the entry-level MG and the expensive Jaguar XK120. Work began in 1951 on the car that would become the Austin Healey.

As with most British manufacturers of the time, the target market was America. DMH and Geoffrey designed the chassis in the family attic around the Austin A90 2660cc four-cylinder engine, while the sleek roadster bodywork was penned by Gerry Coker from DMH’s ideas.

John Thompson Motor Pressings built the prototype chassis, while Tickford built the body. The prototype was registered as the Healey Hundred, and it exceeded 111 mph during testing on the Jabbeke motorway in Belgium.

The Healey Hundred made its official debut at the Earls Court International Motor Show in 1952, where it sparked a sensation. Leonard Lord, the chief of BMC/Austin, was so impressed that he immediately contracted to build the car. Literally overnight the name and badges were changed to the Austin Healey 100. Production passed the newly named car through a chain of capable hands. Healey remained in charge of design, and Austin assembled the car at its Longbridge factory. Bodies were built by Jensen, who mounted them on frames supplied by Thompson. Final assembly of the first 20 production cars was done at Warwick while the Longbridge factory was being set up.

The first four production cars were immediately sent to America, where the Austin Healey 100 was an instant hit, winning the International Motor Show Car of 1953 at the New York Auto Show and the Grand Premium Award winner at the Miami World’s Fair. Orders poured in, and by the middle of 1953 the Longbridge assembly line was producing 100 cars per week.

These early cars (designated as the BN1 series) featured three-speed transmissions with an electric overdrive, wire wheels, folding windscreens and aluminum bodies paired with steel fenders and frames. Suspension was by dual A-arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar and lever shocks up front, with live axle, leaf springs, Panhard rod and lever shocks at the rear. The engine produced 90 horsepower.

Donald Healey was always a racer, and from the very beginning he intended the Austin Healey to be successful on the track. It also had to be a great road car. To somewhat disguise the fact that Austin was building factory race cars, a few “special test” cars were built at Warwick during the very beginning of production. These cars featured lightweight, all-aluminum bodies and bumpers supplied by Jensen, as well as strengthened frames.

Austin supplied special engines with nitrided crankshafts and rugged London taxi gearboxes. Harry Westlake designed a special aluminum cylinder head. These cars were modified continually over the next two years, evolving into the 100S in 1955.

In 1953 the special test cars fulfilled their destiny, competing in the Mille Miglia, the 24 hours of Le Mans, and the Sebring 12-hour race. The cars finished second in class at Le Mans. The team’s finest hour came the following year at Sebring with Lance Macklin and George Huntoon scoring a class win and a fine third place overall.

Macklin and Stirling Moss took another Sebring class win in 1955, but at Le Mans that year Macklin’s car was involved in the infamous accident that sent Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes into the crowd, killing more than 80 spectators. After that tragic event, the big Healey’s road racing successes came from privateers.

Donald Healey’s other racing passion at this time became record breaking, which he saw as a way to increase sales in America. With the help of former land speed record holder George Eyston, Healey sent cars to Bonneville in 1953, 1954 and 1956. The first year Healey set more than 50 stock car records with a production 100 model, and a team of drivers averaged 122.95 mph over 3000 km in a special test car fitted with a 40-gallon fuel tank and steep 2.93:1 gears.

The following year the special test car set endurance records up to 132.29 mph, while Healey himself drove a supercharged 100 fitted with streamlined bodywork to 193.05 mph. Healey’s crowning feat at Bonneville came in 1956 when he drove a streamlined and supercharged 100 Six to 203.11 mph.

No More Fours

The later big Healeys, like the 1966 Austin Healey 3000 MkIII shown here, were powered by a heavier 2.9-liter straight-six engine.

The Healey lineup experienced a major change for 1956. As the supply of four-cylinder engines dried up, a six-cylinder unit was substituted. The resulting car was called the 100 Six. The 100 Six was heavier and less nimble than the 100. Healey added a four-seat version to the model line, but it was to develop a very different motorsports legend.

In November of 1957, big Healey production was moved from Longbridge to the BMC plant at Abingdon-on-Thames, where MGs were also assembled. This brought the car to the attention of Marcus Chambers, who oversaw BMC’s competition department.

Chambers saw that the big Healey could make a very good rally car, and a legend was born. While still entered in major endurance races such as Sebring, Le Mans and the Targa Florio, the big Healey proved well suited to the long-distance rallies of the day, wailing over the Alpine passes that marked many of the events.

Pat Moss (Stirling’s sister) and Ann Wisdom scored the first overall win for a big Healey (by then a 3000 model) at the Liege-Rome-Liege Rally in 1960, and other major victories came from Don and Erle Morley as well as Timo Mäkinen and Tony Ambrose. By the time the big Healey’s rally career ended in 1967, it had developed into a 200-horsepower, gravel-slinging monster that thrilled spectators.

During this time, the road cars were evolving in a different direction. The 100 Six became the 3000 for 1959 thanks to a larger engine and disc brakes. This was followed by the 3000 Mk II in 1961, and in 1963 the car became the 3000 Mk III. With the addition of side windows, a convertible top, wooden dashboard and power brakes, the car became less of a pure sports car and more of a gentleman’s sports tourer, in much the same way that the Jaguar XK-series evolved from the 120 to the 150.

By the mid-1960s the big Healey had become quite dated, and a replacement was needed. Several replacements were considered. The first was a “badge-engineered” six-cylinder MGB, which eventually became the MGC. The second was an ambitious project called the XC512, but Geoffrey Healey says it was variously called The Thing, The Monster or Fireball XL5, depending on who was talking. This car featured a large backbone frame with four-wheel hydrolastic suspension and a 4-liter Rolls-Royce engine.

Developed entirely by BMC with no input from the Healeys, the result was by all accounts an ill-handling rolling disaster that consumed vast amounts of corporate time and money. Fortunately for all concerned, the project was eventually abandoned, although Rolls-Royce later built a quarter-scale model of a possible Bentley, code named Alpha, based on the car.

One Last Gasp

The Healeys themselves developed the most realistic successor to the Mk III. In 1966 they reengineered the 3000 to meet pending American safety standards, widened the prototype six inches by splitting it down the middle and installed the Rolls engine and automatic gearbox.

The Rolls engine was 90 pounds lighter than the old BMC six, which made for a quicker, smoother and better-handling car. Austin was impressed and moved to build six preproduction models with an eye toward a 1968 introduction.

However, after constructing two cars, the parent company pulled the plug on the project, probably due to their dire financial condition. Money troubles forced them to sell out to British Leyland in January 1968. The last big Healey was built in March of 1968, and a great car passed into history.

Donald Healey severed his ties to the product after the British Leyland takeover, and all that remained of Austin Healey was the name until the Sprite nameplate disappeared in 1971. In all, nearly 74,000 big Healeys were built, with about 90 percent sold in America.

The Hot One: The 100M

Customer demand for higher performance resulted in the release of the 100M in October of 1955. Based on the cars built for the 1953 Le Mans 24-hour race, these cars were converted at the Healey factory in Warwick.

Austin delivered freshly completed cars fitted with louvered hoods to Warwick, where they were fitted with hotter camshafts, higher-compression pistons, different distributors, larger SU carburetors, cold-air boxes, larger front anti-roll bars and stiffer shock absorbers.

The engine modifications increased horsepower from 90 to 110 and shaved more than two seconds from the standard car’s zero-to-60 time. Most of the factory-built 100Ms were delivered with two-tone paint. The factory built 640 of these M models, of which 85 percent went to America. Only eight of these cars are reported to have stayed in Britain.

Customer Healeys could also be converted to 100M specifications at Warwick by installing the Le Mans Engine Modification Kit, which included all of the factory-installed modifications as well as a brass plaque mounted on the airbox. An additional 519 cars had this kit installed at Warwick, bringing the total number of documented 100Ms to 1159. An unknown number of other 100 models have been converted to M specs, as all parts were available as aftermarket purchases, including the louvered hoods.

The Ready-to-Race 100S

Out of all of the big Healey variants, surely the 100S is the rarest and most sought-after. Named to commemorate a class win and third overall at the 1954 Sebring 12-hour race, the 100S was a pure race car. Just 50 customer cars were built in 1955 at the Healey headquarters in Warwick. Half of these were shipped to the U.S., where the first car was delivered to Briggs Cunningham.

Official history states that the five factory Special Test cars had evolved to 100S specification over the previous two years, bringing the total number to 55, although it now appears that one of the special test cars, NOJ 392, was never fully converted. In addition, two more special test cars were produced specifically for high-speed runs at Bonneville; some people include these in the total as well.

The 100S differed from the regular 100 in many ways. The standard frame was reinforced with additional gussets, while Jensen made the entire body out of aluminum. Gerry Coker altered the body with a smaller, oval-shaped grill opening, louvered hood secured by a leather strap, total lack of bumpers, low plastic windshield with no wipers, and no provision for a top or side curtains.

The cars carried a 24-gallon alloy fuel tank fitted with a quick-removal cap. Even the seats were different, as they were light, supportive and fitted with cooling slots for driver comfort. Most of the production cars were white with sides painted a dark blue called lobelia to approximate American racing colors.

The engine featured a nitrided crankshaft, higher compression, dual 1 3/4-inch SU carbs and a special alloy cylinder head designed by Harry Westlake that featured individual cylinder ports and larger valves. This combination produced 132 horsepower at 4700 rpm and 168 lb.-ft. of torque at 2500 rpm.

The engine drove a close-ratio, four-speed gearbox without overdrive that was connected to a special spiral bevel differential. Four-wheel Dunlop disc brakes were fitted, and handling was improved by stiffer shock absorbers. Zero to 60 mph came in 7.8 seconds, and top speed was 126 mph.

The first official race outing for the 100S came at the 1955 Sebring 12 hours, where seven cars were entered. Stirling Moss and Lance Macklin drove their factory car to sixth overall and first in class. At Le Mans that year, Macklin’s factory 100S was involved in the Pierre Levegh Mercedes tragedy. After that, most of the 100S’s race victories came from privateers.

Dr. Robert Griffin purchased his 100S, number AHS3802, in 1999 from a seller in Australia. It had originally been shipped to Royston Distributors in Philadelphia, on April 15, 1955, who sold it to John Barnes Mull of Malvern, Pa. Mull raced the car until selling it to Commander Fred Losee, a Navy dentist and original member of the famous Lavender Hill Mob, a group of Washington, D.C.-area SCCA racers. Losee later took the car to New Zealand where it raced successfully for more than 20 years. It was then vintage raced in Australia.

Dr. Griffin has treated AHS3802 to a complete frame-up restoration while retaining the original body panels. He keeps the car on the road in a wide variety of vintage events, including the Mille Miglia Storica, Colorado Grand, Texas 1000, and the Meadow Brook, Kohler International Challenge and Austin Healey International Meet concours.

Things to Know

Big Healeys in excellent condition are selling regularly for $30,000 to $70,000 these days, depending on the model and quality of restoration. A few exquisite cars have topped $100,000 at high-profile auctions. In general, the two-seat versions are the most valuable, with high premiums paid for documented 100M cars.

The extremely rare 100S almost never comes up for sale, although one of the original special test factory race cars—the NOJ 392, which finished second in class at Le Mans in 1953 and was never fully converted to an S—was recently advertised at $795,000. This surely must be the most valuable big Healey ever offered for sale.

Perhaps the most usable big Healeys are the 3000 Mk III convertibles due to their power and comfort, but the four-cylinder cars are preferred by many for their handling characteristics.

Engine

Cracked cylinder heads are common on the four-cylinder cars, as are front and rear crankshaft seal leaks and worn rocker shafts on all engines.

Drivetrain

Transmissions are expensive to repair and should be examined carefully. Second gear failures are common on three-speed BN1 cars.

Popular improvements include increased thermal insulation under the carpeting, six-blade plastic cooling fans, upgraded ignition systems and 3.54:1 final drives teamed with overdrive transmissions.
Inspect wire wheels and hubs carefully for worn splines. Listen for a clunking sound when changing directions between forward and reverse. Many owners have upgraded to stronger 60- or 72-spoke wire wheels wrapped with radial tires.

Chassis

Some owners have significantly reduced scuttle shake by welding angle iron into the square transmission box portion of the scuttle during restoration.

While new and rebuilt lever-action shocks are available from a number of suppliers, there is another option if you’re not concerned with originality or concours points: modern tube-type shocks. Conversion kits are available that use top quality components, and some, such as Udo Putzke’s Fahrspass Bilstein conversion, require no modifications to the mounting points so the car can be returned to stock.

The factory 100M specification included a larger front anti-roll bar. Upgrading the front bar (and in some cases adding a rear bar) is one of the most popular ways to improve the big Healey’s handling.

Body and Interior

In addition to the usual rust, the big Healey is subject to electrolytic corrosion wherever aluminum and steel body panels touch, particularly along the fender panel seams and frame. Due to the car’s extremely low ground clearance, the frame is very susceptible to damage and should be checked carefully.

Body panels should be examined for originality; each panel was stamped with the car’s serial number, so matching numbers takes on a whole new meaning here.

Check panel fit carefully, as the Healey chassis is quite flexible and unequal gaps might signal deeper problems. Due to this flexibility, panels should be aligned with the powertrain installed in the car.

The British Motor Industry Heritage Trust can provide a Heritage Certificate —a build sheet—for regular production cars built at Longbridge or Abingdon. The cost is about $75 for the certificate and postage. They do not have information on Warwick-built cars such as the 100S, special test racers or the first 20 production cars. For information about this service, see their Web site.

Big Healeys are extremely popular vintage racers, both among drivers and spectators. While rarely seen at major autocrosses these days, the big Healey can boast of two national championships: Jeff Garber won E Stock in 1976 and Bill Fleig won E Modified in 2003 driving a “100/8” powered by a thundering V8.

Join Free Join our community to easily find more Austin-Healey articles.
Comments
View comments on the CMS forums
TR8owner
TR8owner HalfDork
3/18/11 2:51 p.m.

Had a 3000 beater back in the early 70's for a short while when at college. Sold it for $300. cracked frame and all.

jerrygardner1967
jerrygardner1967 None
11/2/12 4:56 p.m.

love the big healys, used to have a 100-6, top falling in while driveing, window sailing out going down the road, racing MGBs,. not good at autocrossing, but truly a fun car and one I will always remember. Would love to have a 66, or 67 3000, you know roll up windows, fold down top.

Our Preferred Partners
QnBgE9zuuOPSpkXQ9nguR6i7bfZaFEk16CPTwHBQ2Qdk0WIOG1WHKuOkir6XDVbe